If your life has changed and you want to revise portions of your estate plan, changing or amending your will doesn’t have to be complicated – but resist the urge to take a pen to your old one. Crossing things out or adding provisions in the margins might cause the court to declare that it’s invalid. If that happens, the law will decide who receives your property and the result may not be in line with your wishes.
Adding a Codicil
If the change you want to make is minor – you sold the ATV you specifically left to your niece and you want to make sure she gets something else instead – you can make an addition to your will called a codicil. This is actually an additional document, but it doesn’t stand alone. In it, you can refer to the exact provision in your will that you’re changing, then state the change. It’s best if you’re very specific and indicate that you want all other provisions of your will to remain the same. You must date it and sign it. Make sure your signature is witnessed by however many individuals your state requires. All the same signing formalities apply to a codicil as to a will, so in many respects, making one involves just as much effort as redoing the original document. If you saved a copy of your will on your computer, you could probably just as easily access the document, revise the sections that you’re no longer comfortable with, then call your witnesses together to watch you sign that instead.
Creating a Property Memorandum
If your amendment relates to an item or items of property, you may be able to create a personal property memorandum and attach this to your will. One problem with this approach is that the language of your will must usually provide for the memorandum, by saying, for example, that you want your property distributed according to the terms of the attached list. If your will doesn’t already say this, you’ll have to redo your will to accommodate the memorandum. If it does, you need only redraft, sign and date the list, citing what items you want to go to which individuals. Check with a lawyer first to make sure your state honors such amendments. Not all do.
Replacing the Will
If the change you want to make is particularly substantial, or if you decide that it’s just as easy to write a new will as to add a codicil to the old one, be clear about what you’re doing. No one will be able to ask you what you meant or what you intended after your death. It’s usually a good idea to state in your new will that you’re revoking the old one in its entirety, and specify the date the old will was signed. This is true whether you’re changing just one small provision or many terms. You can repeat the provisions you want to keep in the new document. You can then tear up the old will or otherwise destroy it, preferably in front of witnesses. If you leave the lion’s share of your estate to the individual who watches you destroy your old will, this might create problems later on, however. Disgruntled heirs might say that she’s lying and you never got rid of the old will that left her nothing; therefore, the old will should still stand. You can avoid problems like this by having different individuals watch you get rid of your old will and sign the new one. Another possibility is to simply write on your old will that you’ve revoked it – in big, block letters – then attach that one to the new one that repeats your intention to revoke it.
When You May Need a New Will
If you’re amending your will to accommodate a major life event such as marrying, divorcing, having children, moving to another state or disinheriting someone, you might want to confer with an attorney first regarding the best way to go about it. States have their own laws regarding what you can and cannot do in these situations, so seek expert advice before you make changes that might not later be upheld by the court.